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Social Studies


By Vincent Williams | Posted 10/21/2009

I've been looking forward to Black Dynamite since I first saw the promo writer/star Michael Jai White put together last year. Not so much a spoof as a homage, the film looks like a lovingly recreated black action film from the '70s, with, among other features, pitch perfect costuming, that strange '70s fetishization of martial arts, and a plot involving getting dope out of the neighborhoods. As a longtime fan of films from the period, it seemed like a perfect project and one I'd enjoy. So I was a little concerned with Fred Williamson's resistance to the movie.

During an interview with journalist Lee Bailey, the famed athlete-turned-actor said, as a comedy, Black Dynamite can't be a tribute to him because, "I don't do comedy." And I think there's something to that. So many of the black films from the '70s, aka "blaxploitation" films, have never gotten the respect they deserve and, from Williamson's point of view, I understand his sensitivity.

Like many people, my first real exposure to '70s flicks was in the dorm room, surrounded by my peers and cheap alcohol. I spent many a night watching over-the-top spectacles like Dolemite and Three The Hard Way and J.D.'s Revenge. Oh, I laughed at the clothes and the scripts and the plots (seriously, J.D.'s Revenge is about a mild-mannered college student who gets possessed by the spirit of a murdered pimp, picks up new prostitutes, avenges his own murder, and, well, you should see it). We all had a grand old time at the expense of the artists who participated in them, and we had blaxploitation nights, and, to this day, all of it is the butt of any number of jokes.

But then, by myself and without the booze, I watched and admired black '70s dramas like Claudine and Black Girl that spoke to the post-civil-rights-movement experiences of African-Americans with more detail and attention than most films have since. I marveled at the comedic craftsmanship of films like my beloved Sidney Poitier/Bill Cosby trilogy Uptown Saturday Night, Let's Do It Again, and A Piece of the Action, or the biting satire of Watermelon Man. And, while films like Chinatown and The French Connection are justifiably celebrated, I think both of the films based on the adventures of Chester Himes' classic detective characters Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones, Come Back, Charleston Blue and Cotton Comes to Harlem, have been criminally overlooked in the same tradition. And, as much as we've all obsessed over the original Shaft, I've always thought that Shaft's Big Score! was an underrated noir-ish movie.

Yes, there were bad black movies made in the '70s. As they began to make money, it seemed like a non-caring producer threw together some foolish slop every couple of weeks. I love Jim Brown as much as the next person, but the Slaughter films . . . were not very good. And, since I've been married and had a daughter, I actually feel kind of skeevy every time I watch Coffy or Sheba, Baby or, well, the vast majority of the movies Pam Grier made where she "went undercover as a hooker" or had her clothes ripped off . . . again.

The problem is that all of the films have become conflated in the minds of the public. No one differentiates between the good movies and the bad ones; anything made during the '70s that features characters with afros is automatically viewed as disposable blaxploitation. And, over the years, actors like Fred Williamson have been very vocal about their dismay at the mischaracterization. To Williamson, this was a period that, for the first time, black people onscreen got to be heroes and save the day and get the girl. And he has a point. Arguably, without the efforts of actors such as Richard Roundtree, Brown, and Williamson, there would be no Denzel Washington or Will Smith. And instead of acknowledging the link between these generations of black actors, we've made this era of films into a punchline.

And, to Williamson, regardless of its intentions, White's comedy continues in that tradition of disrespect. Certainly, other genres of film have been spoofed, but I think the difference is that for every spoof of white '70s films--the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage" video, for example--there are a dozen remakes that treat the period with respect. The only time we discuss the film work of people like Williamson is to make jokes. I'm still going to see Black Dynamite but, I have to admit, I don't know if I'm going to laugh as much.

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